Either LeBron James is going to get distracted by his outside ventures in Hollywood this summer, or the rest of the NBA might be in trouble.
The crossroads is clearly marked, the only uncertainty being which path James takes. In likely missing the NBA playoffs for the first time in 14 years, will James lose the focus so essential to his day job and plunge headlong into the entertainment and philanthropic pursuits that intrigue him and fill up so many of the hours not demanded by basketball?
Or, with two additional months freed up by missing not just the postseason but The Finals for the first time since 2010, will James up his gym time and challenge himself physically and mentally to come back healthier, stronger and better for 2019-20, the season during which he’ll turn 35 years old?
At least one of James’ old cronies expects the latter. As Kevin Love told Cleveland.com recently, “Just having that break, being able to reassess and come back really, really highly motivated is going to be big for him. If you get ‘Bron highly motivated anything can happen.”
First, of course, comes a period of adjustment in processing a season without any playoff possibilities. That hasn’t been part of the James brand since 2005, his second year in the NBA, back when he still couldn’t legally buy an adult beverage.
Even if his body craves a longer layoff after eight straight Finals trips, during which he averaged nearly 97 regular season and postseason appearances — cramming in the equivalent of two extra seasons — it figures to be disorienting to be idled when more than half the league keeps going come mid-April.
It also will bump James down a rung among the game’s legendary players, as measured by how frequently or infrequently they failed to lead their teams into the playoffs. From a collection of 30 of the NBA’s best players ever, nine never missed a chance to qualify for the big spring tournament.
Eight more did it in all but one or two of the years they played, a group that includes G.O.A.T. candidates Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan. James, once his Lakers are mathematically eliminated from this year’s field of 16, will slip to the next tier of Hall of Fame-worthy players who failed to steer their clubs home three times.
Then there’s the group who wound up outside looking in four or more times for whatever reasons. In all, this group of 30 greats have logged 459 individual seasons, only 65 of which ended without a playoff berth.
That’s how rare and out of character this 2018-19 Lakers season has been, not just for James’ legacy but in comparison to the best of the best.
Here is a look at the ones that got away:
First time, every time (9)
Elgin Baylor: 13 seasons, no misses, 1.000
He missed the playoffs in 1971 due to injury and retired nine games in the following season, but the Lakers never failed to qualify in his one-franchise career.
Larry Bird: 13 seasons, no misses, 1.000
Bird missed the postseason in 1989, the year he played in only six games, though the Celtics did not.
Bob Cousy: 13 seasons, no misses, 1.000
We’re not going to hold the 1969-70 season – when Cousy played limited minutes in seven games as Cincinnati’s player-coach, six years after retiring – against him.
Tim Duncan: 19 years, no misses, 1.000
No one in league history has gone 20-for-20, so Duncan and Karl Malone are the best of our 1.000 hitters. Duncan missed the 2000 playoffs due to injury and that was too much for the defending-champion Spurs to overcome, getting ousted by Phoenix in four.
Julius Erving: 11 seasons, no misses, 1.000
And that’s just his NBA years. The Doctor went 5-for-5 in the ABA, twice winning titles with the Nets and averaging 31.1 points and 12.9 boards in those five postseasons.
Magic Johnson: 13 seasons, no misses, 1.000
This even includes his limited 1995-96 season, a forgettable 32-game comeback after four years of retirement.
Karl Malone: 19 seasons, no misses, 1.000
The Mailman’s running buddy, John Stockton, never missed, either, in his 19-year Hall of Fame career.
Bill Russell: 13 seasons, no misses, 1.000
The idea of this guy and his Boston team sitting out a postseason is unimaginable.
Jerry West: 13 seasons, no misses, 1.000
West was such a noble and, with the exception of the Lakers’ title in ’72, ill-fated playoff performer that he was named Finals MVP in 1970 from the losing side.
The asterisk club (3)
Wilt Chamberlain: 14 seasons, one miss (1963), .929
In any conversation about G.O.A.T. candidates, Chamberlain’s teams missed the playoffs fewer times than either Jordan’s (twice) or James (three).
Scottie Pippen: 17 seasons, one miss (2004), .941
Six of Pippen’s postseason appearances came when he wasn’t a teammate of Michael Jordan.
David Robinson: 14 seasons, one miss (1997), .929
The Spurs got swept from the first round when Robinson couldn’t participate in the 1992 postseason. When he was hurt again in 1997, San Antonio missed the playoffs entirely but landed Duncan in a stroke of lottery luck.
Fool me twice… (5)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 20 seasons, two misses (1975, ’76), .900
This was not a happy Captain in his post-Oscar, pre-Magic run through his prime of two misses and five postseasons (1975-79) without a Finals appearance.
Michael Jordan: 15 seasons, two misses (2002, ’03), .867
Jordan’s Bulls era is unsullied, but his return to action with Washington was a business decision that scratched a personal itch rather than a winning strategy.
Shaquille O’Neal: 19 seasons, two misses (1993, ’09), .895
The No. 8 seed in the East in 2009 won 39 games, but Phoenix’s 46 weren’t enough in the West that season. O’Neal also missed as a rookie with Orlando (1992-93).
Bob Pettit: 11 seasons, two misses, .818
Pettit’s Hawks teams missed the playoffs in his 1955 Rookie of the Year season and again in 1962, despite his 31.1 ppg and 18.7 rpg.
Dwyane Wade: 16 seasons, two misses (2008, ’15), .875
Miami held the No. 8 spot in the East as this was written, so it counts among his 14 trips to the postseason thus far.
Three strikes, you’re out! (7)
Charles Barkley: 16 seasons, three misses (1988, ’92, ’00), .813
Barkley’s three stops – in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Houston – couldn’t sustain playoff excellence enough to earn him a ring.
Rick Barry: 10 seasons, three misses (1966, ’74, ’78), .700
Barry’s NBA/ABA/NBA again career included a personal playoff whiff with the Oakland Oaks in 1969, thanks to torn knee ligaments, though the team went 60-18 and won that league’s championship.
Stephen Curry: 10 seasons, three misses (2010, ’11, ’12), .700
People tend to forget how much of the Warriors’ dark days Curry saw. They were a cumulative 60 games under .500 his first three seasons.
Kevin Durant: 12 seasons, three misses (2008, ’09, ’15), .750
The SuperSonics/Thunder were 43-121 his first two seasons, then missed again at 45-37 when Durant was limited to just 27 appearances by a foot injury.
John Havlicek: 16 seasons, three misses (1970, ’71, ’78), .813
Won six rings with Russell, then bridged post-Russell gap to win two more in ’74 and ’76.
LeBron James: 16 seasons, three misses (2004, ’05, ’19), .813
Lakers fans are hoping this is like Kobe Bryant’s blip in ’05 rather than his run of three straight lottery finishes prior to retirement.
Hakeem Olajuwon: 18 seasons, three misses (1992, ’00, ’01), .833
Olajuwon’s first year without a playoff appearance nearly got him traded. His last two signaled the end was near.
To infinity and beyond (6)
Kobe Bryant: 20 seasons, four misses (2005, ’14, ’15, ’16), .800
Bryant’s extended off-ramp from his Hall of Fame career included three early offseasons.
Kevin Garnett: 21 seasons, six misses (1996, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’15, ’16), .714
The 2005-07 hole in the prime of Garnett’s career, when Minnesota couldn’t assemble a worthy supporting cast around him, is unique among the game’s all-time greats.
Moses Malone: 19 seasons, seven misses (1978, ’86, ’90, ’92, ’93, ’94, ’95), .632
Play for enough franchises – and Malone did, at seven – and you’re bound to end up on some clunkers. Most of his misses came from ages 34-39.
Dirk Nowitzki: 21 seasons, six misses (1999, ’00, ’13, ’17, ’18, ’19), .714
Nowitzki has kind of a Kobe thing going on, his Hall of Fame-worthy greatness no longer enough to boost into the playoffs the only franchise for which he’s played.
Oscar Robertson: 14 seasons, four misses (1961, ’68, ’69, ’70), .714
It was Robertson’s final years in Cincinnati that prepared him for his late-career run (four playoffs, two Finals, one ring) with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee.
Isiah Thomas: 13 seasons, four misses (1982, ’83, ’93, ’94), .692
The Hall of Fame point guard missed in his first two and his last two seasons and, more specifically, never reached the postseason without Chuck Daly as coach.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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